Egyptian cinema and globalization

Walter Armbrust, the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, has an opinion piece on Egyptian cinema in the Daily Star:

Films that have struck American journalists - though not necessarily Egyptian audiences - as controversial include "Saidi fi al-Gamiaa al-Amerikiyya" (An Upper Egyptian in the American University; 1998), in which a peasant makes his way to the elitist American University in Cairo; or "Allo Amerika" (Hello America; 2000), in which a man visits his cousin in New York and encounters a virtual encyclopedia of Egyptian stereotypes about the amoral nature of American society. These films must be understood in the same context as "The Closed Doors." They are not so much anti-American as nationalist. More importantly, they are far from being the "massive wave" of anti-Americanism in the Arab world to which the American media often points. Indeed, anti-Americanism in Egyptian cinema is best seen as a mini-trend that has perhaps had its day. In the past two years by far the most significant commercial Egyptian film has been "Sahar al-Layali" (Sleepless Nights; 2003) - an exploration of marital problems portrayed pointedly against the backdrop of a completely globalized Egyptian society. "Sleepless Nights" showed characters who could have been living anywhere - in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or any suburbanized city. The film asked what relations between Egyptian men and women would be like if reduced to their essence through the elimination of all worries about money, modernity or politics. It represented in many ways a total embrace of globalization, but one that contrasted strongly with that of "The Closed Doors."


I would add to that one thing: many of the stereotypes about American life found in Egyptian movies (notably sexual licentiousness) are partly tongue-in-cheek, a play on the idea that lower class Egyptians think of foreign women as "easy." There are levels of subtlety here, especially in a film as ridiculous as "Allo Amerika," which plays on popular Egyptian stereotypes of America. I haven't seen "The Closed Doors" (the main film Amrbrust discusses, see the article) but "Sahar Al Layali" was indeed an excellent film, apart from the cheesy ending, and a departure from the rather bad goofball comedies of the late 1990s. On the other hand, the world "Sahar Al Layali" is set in -- that of well-heeled, cosmopolitan Cairenes -- may be reflecting the beginning of trend away from "popular" cinema. In a sense this could be a throwback to the 1950s and early 1960s, when most movies were middle class situation comedies that reflected an early Nasserist ideal of Arab modernity. But if so, one worries about the future of Egyptian movies about the working class outside of the slapstick comedies like "Al Limby." In America mainstream movies with (at least white) working class characters have been increasingly rare (perhaps the last great American movie dealing with working class issues is "Saturday Night Fever", which is unjustly mostly remembered for the dance and music.) Perhaps this is going to become a global trend.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.